PRINT November 2005


IN MATHIAS POLEDNA’S 16 mm black-and-white film Version, 2004, silence is deafening. The Los Angeles–based, Austrian-born artist’s most recent film features a dark space in which a group of young dancers sway languidly, their movements registering an unhurried and tranquilizing rhythm. The setting is strangely airless, a spatiotemporal vacuum that indicates nothing of its location; the music is audible only to those on screen as they weave about in a kind of trance-induced shuffle, an affectless ten-minute performance that loops repeatedly when projected. Poledna trains his camera on the dancers: We see tightly observed passages of hips, elbows, shoulders, and occasionally a face, only rarely glimpsing a broader view of the event. Without screaming “retro,” the dancers’ style appears of a certain vintage; but it’s hard to put a finger on precisely what that vintage might be. The jut of someone’s hair or the peculiar rise of a sweatshirt or jeans recalls stills from the annals of both modern and popular dance—think Judson Church or Yvonne Rainer, or better yet think American Bandstand—but the abstract quality of the film and its cinematic fragmentation of bodies resist seamless reads.

As in Poledna’s earlier, prefilmic, research-based work produced in Vienna and his more recent films Actualité, 2001, and Western Recording, 2003, Version delves into a virtual archive of what the artist calls “fragments of twentieth-century culture,” using histories of pop movements as an organizing principle. Without recourse to sound or voiceover to advance the scene, the audience is compelled to engage in an imaginative guessing game, scrutinizing not only scant visual details for clues to the work’s larger meaning but reflecting critically on the relationship between sound and vision in the various genres of music and dance cinema. The artist, however, injects a purposeful opacity into his representations. While his decisively grainy footage suggests antique film stock, the work does not so much play to nostalgic sensibilities as it troubles them relative to the range of their historical mediations. In Version, Poledna taps into a reservoir of these arcane associations, as if prompting us to ask, “Didn’t we see this film before?” But there’s something blank and miasmic about these references. They fail to sponsor any singular point of orientation for the viewer, lacking the declarative punch of a full-blown iconography and the stable signifying conventions that come with the territory.

Poledna achieves this effect by insisting on a certain discontinuity between sound and vision. In Version, it’s expressed as the rupture between diegetic sound and nondiegetic sound (Poledna effectively collapses the two) and mise-en-scène. The sound track’s absence suspends immediate access into the work for the viewer, who first attempts to fill in the narrative blanks before realizing the uselessness of the activity. What this suggests about Poledna’s ongoing project has to do with the ways in which different forms of media—in this instance, visual and audio material—coalesce into larger cultural representations; and how these forms supplement one another in the production of recent history. Indeed, prior to his making films (which he has been doing for the past five years), his practice engaged a variety of political and pop-cultural sources, producing a range of work every bit as diverse as the materials he was investigating. In addition to site-specific projects and interventions that gave nods to the first generation of institutional critique, Poledna contributed to the magazines Texte zur Kunst and springerin, writing reviews and features on architecture, design, books, and music. He was also working extensively as a graphic designer and organizing the occasional show. One work in particular foreshadows the quasi-ethnographic impulse distilled in his recent films: The video installation Fondazione was created in 1998 for an exhibition Poledna curated at the Generali Foundation in Vienna entitled “The making of.” The work is partly a documentary of the Fondazione Feltrinelli in Milan, one of the most extensive archives of literature related to labor movements and utopian thinking in Europe.

Poledna repeatedly draws on such diverse strands of political and pop-cultural materials to investigate the multilayered and polyvalent dimensions of cultural representation, specifically those that assume the status of official history. His last three shorts—Actualité, Western Recording, and Version—reveal an emerging preoccupation with the relation of sound to images. In these films a thematic split occurs between the visual documentation of the staged event and the sound track meant to accompany it, as if one struggled to keep pace with the other and both fell progressively out of sync. Western Recording depicts a singer in a recording studio warbling an obscure Harry Nilsson tune from 1969. He is captured in a series of ever-multiplying perspectives within his tabula rasa setting, but the back-and-forth between close and medium views denies the audience the totality of the performance. Similarly, Poledna’s Actualité—equally inspired by the Lumiére brothers’ film of the same title and Godard’s fractured paean to the Rolling Stones, One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil (1968)—sees a band of young musicians rehearsing on an empty soundstage (they are actually professional actors). Attempting to settle into a groove, they stop and start again and again—but to no avail. Like Version, Actualité is set in a kind of liminal zone; and like the dancers in the later film, the musicians appear to occupy some recent if not wholly nameable past, their wardrobe telegraphing the No Wave aesthetic of the early 1980s in keeping with the angular music they fruitlessly labor to play. This failure even to start a rhythm—to find a beat propulsive enough to motivate the events being projected—is equal but opposite to the soundless repetition of Version. Neither recording of the visual event matches up with its sonic unfolding in time.

Both approaches hint at a tension in our relationship with the sources to which Poledna implicitly alludes and at the ways in which the vagaries of collective myth and memory have come to stand as history itself. Poledna effectively overturns our comfortable habituation as viewers of time-based media. The disconnect between sound and vision in these works underscores a parallel failure on the part of their audiences: our vast capacity to be passively absorbed into the ambient space produced by the conjunction of music and cinema. An admittedly crude experiment helps illustrate the matter. Rent your average Hollywood blockbuster—a Jerry Bruckheimer flick will do just fine—and try to parse what little plot exists from the characteristically bombastic sound track. There’s a reason why Aerosmith tunes blare out at moments of high drama. Hard-rock histrionics play surrogate to the narrative complexity sorely lacking in movies of this genre.

And it’s for equally good reason that writers on Poledna have frequently turned to Theodor Adorno to countermand this musical logic. In one of his many bleak accounts on the role of popular music within the culture industry, the German philosopher lambasted what he called ’30s music’s “fetish character”: the reified nature of its easily assimilated melodies; its propensity to subsume listeners in a wash of aural pabulum; and its facilitation of a new mode of listening, described by Adorno as “regressive.” Poledna’s work corresponds well with this critique. For example, Actualité treats the musical riff as a twinned fetish of sorts, a commodity and object of desire. The riff is pop music’s sonic desideratum, the thing meant to “hook” you; its repetition sells the tune, as if the song had internalized its own advertisement. For Poledna, the musicians’ failure in Actualité to find a hook betrays the impossibility of their achieving either goal, of striking the elusive chord that resonates empathetically, and commercially, with their audience. By staging this musical scenario in an equally unreachable past, the “regressive” then assumes a historical dimension for Poledna as well. We may first be lured by a sense of nostalgia the film appears to invite but soon find that the experience is withheld at the level of narrative, which stumbles and stalls along with the music.

This may seem a less-than-promising diagnosis of the state of music and moving images, but there’s a dialectical component at work in Version that licenses both critique and pleasure. To withdraw the sound track in this film, after all, is to put that music in reserve: to deny its explicitly commercial function when instrumentalized in the service of images. (Witness the fate of countless punk, “indie,” or “alternative” songs in advertisements for SUVs, cruises, and other props of the lifestyle industry.) The communal aspect of Poledna’s soundless dance paradoxically suggests both utopian possibilities and the social mechanisms that stand to repress them. In fact, the inaudible song that sets the dancers into motion was performed by Junior Delahaye, whose politicized reggae and dub innovations of the early ’80s called equally on a world of hard work and the prospects of liberation (Delahaye’s key song here is 1983’s “Working Hard for the Rent Man”). This subtext, once brought to light, recasts our view of the performers, whose movements can read as both labor-intensive (or at least “task-oriented,” in the way defined by the “minimalist” performance of the ’60s whose practitioners are hinted at by Poledna’s choreography) and purposeless—and thus outside the strictures of work. The fractured glimpses of the dancers’ bodies in Version and the near-abstract way the camera tracks movement release the performers from a set narrative or stable personae that might lock them into an overdetermined historical scenario.

Following a practice established with early works like Fondazione, Version is quasi-ethnographic in spirit—though the artist hardly takes the ethnographic at face value. Just as he is interested in our collective imaginary around popular music and its mythos, so too will he investigate the logic of its mediation through ethnographic forms. A clue to precisely which aspect of pop ethnography surfaced when Version was shown at Richard Telles Fine Art in Los Angeles last spring. A program organized by the artist in conjunction with the exhibit was called “Films with Music from China, Haiti, Jamaica, North America.” The screening featured not only a special version of Version (called Sufferers’ Version, 2004, it is the same ten-minute sequence presented with its reggae sound track) but also Maya Deren’s Meditation on Violence (1948). A twelve-minute black- and-white study of martial artist Ch’ao-Li Chi performing Wu-Tang boxing and Shao-Lin movements, Meditation was one of three shorts to which her larger notion of “choreographies for camera” quite literally applied. But her association with anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham—whose engagement with Haitian music sparked Deren’s subsequent interest in Vodoun ritual (culminating in her famous study Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti [1953])—is more telling with regard to Poledna’s interest in her work.

Deren’s art is upheld as paradigmatic of the “trance film,” P. Adams Sitney’s notion of a dreamlike and surrealizing cinema, but its ethnographic and ritualistic aspects play an equal share in her poetics. A canny use of sound highlights the precise means by which she manipulates movement cinematically and rejects the standard linear narratives expected of studio film. You can imagine Poledna drawing something from her example: Deren set Meditation to a sound track alternating between classical Chinese flute, Haitian drum, and extended gaps of silence; and her description of the composition would be as aptly applied to that of Poledna’s Version. “The film begins in the middle of a movement and ends in the middle of a movement, suggesting the infinite extensions of a fugue rather than an enclosed climactic structure,” Deren noted, adding: “The other problem which I began working on in this film is the relating of sound to images brought together from independent sources, rather than that the source of the sound and image be one and the same as in the theatrical tradition, which dominates most film.” Version is in keeping with the challenges Deren poses to film’s theatrical inclinations, though it finds its solution by avoiding sound altogether. And in the spirit of many of Deren’s films, it does so through the mediating role of ethnography.

On the occasion of the very first showing of Version, at Galerie Meyer Kainer in Vienna, Poledna pursued an ethnographic source of a more explicitly pop-cultural variety. In a gallery adjacent to the room where the film was projected, he displayed an untitled work consisting of a group of album covers, the titles of which represented a veritable library of ethnomusicology. Their display in a glass vitrine evoked museum exhibitions of material culture while harkening back to the methods of research Poledna had early on employed in his practice. Indeed, the albums that make up the work are culled from the catalogue of Folkways Records & Service Co., the New York–based label started in 1948 by Moses Asch and Marian Distler. Releasing more than two thousand records from the time of its founding to Asch’s death in 1986, Folkways’s original mission was curatorial, practicing a kind of “salvage ethnography” by gathering the music of tribal peoples once breezily described as “primitive.” In addition to these holdings, the label was also renowned for its critical role in the American folk-music revival. Artists from its ranks such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger would become formative influences on a younger generation of performers that included Bob Dylan.

Folkways’s linking the genre of “world music” to American source material sheds interesting light on Poledna’s ethnographic forays. Given the kind of titles usually associated with the label, one album displayed inspires a double take: A red-and-black cover with bold white letters announces Bertolt Brecht Before the Committee on Un-American Activities. That a record documenting one of the most ignominious episodes of American history could be classed alongside Laotian and central Indian tribal music suggests a more expansive notion of the ethnographic—not to mention the “primitive”—than what these words are generally taken to mean. By including this record, Poledna recasts our relationship to our own aural histories. The mythomania that spurred the actions of those responsible for the Communist witch hunt are indeed inseparable from the mythos surrounding American culture and the legacies of its recent past.

If you pay a visit to the website for Folkways—whose catalogue is now owned, not incidentally, by the Smithsonian Institution—you might come across a factoid of some relevance for Poledna’s work. The rumor goes that one of the label’s most popular titles from 1950, The Sounds of the Rainforest, a nature recording–cum–found music was actually recorded in a shower in New York City. Music has been regarded, at least since the Enlightenment, as the most transient and thus most aesthetic of the arts and the least subject to vulgarization. A noisy simulacrum of Amazon life would suggest, on the other hand, that modern recording technologies have irrevocably eroded that romantic ideal. Poledna starts from this point but goes much further in his critique. It’s through an apparently jumbled crossing of references—between the past and the present, avant-garde and mass culture, ethnography and myth, communal and private forms of social experience—that the artist betrays an acute instinct for our modern “folkways”: the behaviors we accord to the visual culture of music and the fractured dramas of history we spin from that culture in turn.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.